Episode 21: Disaster on the Front Lines

       The plan was to help get the wand by cleaning up criminal activities.

Before we could, though, we received word that danger had cropped up in the world above, which was unexpected these days. We learned soon enough that the Zinji had unified across the world above and below, and they were once again launching an assault against us.

This time, it was the Besherman.

We got word that Fynn had been deployed to help stop the Zinji army from marching on the Grid, and we quickly rushed to aid him in his efforts. Many cities had fallen already, and the Zinji seemed bent on taking advantage of the weaked state of affairs in the world above. Why they wanted the Grid, we did not know. We just knew we had to stop them.

Northern Marshes, World Above

       A campfire was no longer necessary to stay warm here on the coast. The heat from the massive fires blew across the beaches, making everyone in heavy armor sweat profusely. The Besherman wore garments that covered their bodies and protected them from the elements, but they didn’t elect to wear the heavy plate armor that was popular in the world below.

       Fynn had lost his helmet during a scuffle with a Zinji rogue, but he retained the rest of his gold and blue plate armor, unwilling to make himself an easy mark by removing other pieces.

       “It’s got to feel like an oven in there,” Syanna said as she stepped over to the paladin and handed him his nightly ration of bread and dried cheese. “The wall of magic appears to be holding the Zinji at bay. You should relax. They aren’t going to take Kennis tonight.”

       “Relax?” Fynn asked, trying to imply in his tone how absurd the very idea of relaxing was at a time like this. “Last week I was preparing to participate in a surprise attack against the Zenji. Now I’m sitting here hoping we don’t get burned alive before reinforcements arrive. How can I relax?”

       “The might of the Zinji has been surprising, but we’re not unprepared,” Syanna countered. “Their fleets sail from the desert realm. As we speak, the Udirians are bringing troops to aid us here. The Zinji caught us off our guard, that’s the truth, but we will stand strong against them now.”

       Fynn wished he had Syanna’s confidence in the situation.

       They had stopped the Zinji’s advance, but they had only done so with a massive wall of magic, which was something straight out of one of Sionis’ old tales of the Yunai invasions. That had been our most powerful defensive and the enemy troops had triggered it in the first wave. If they had more surprises up their sleeves, which Fynn was confident that they did, then it was only a matter of time before it all fell apart.

       Still, the bread and cheese was a welcome sight, so the paladin gratefully accepted them and took a seat on the sandy beach. “Any word from Sionis or Iliera?” he asked, taking his first bite.

       “No,” Syanna answered. “They were in Bounty Bay and then they went silent. The rumor is the Baron got them cornered while they were visiting.”

       “Do you think they are in danger?” Fynn pressed, his concern growing.

       “No,” Syanna said with a chuckle. “They would have taken half of Bounty Bay with them if the Baron had tried anything funny. No, I imagine they’ve made some kind of a deal to resolve their past conflicts.”

       Fynn still wasn’t sure what had possessed them to go down to Bounty Bay in the first place. They had told him they had to meet with someone, but they never explained why or what had led them to that situation, and in his initial shock and anger at what he perceived as disloyalty, he hadn’t thought to let them explain. He certainly wished they were here now. While Fynn was no stranger to major conflicts, he hadn’t quite grown into the role of experienced veteran. He was somewhere in between, and that was an awkward place to be without others there to support you.

       Syanna and the others had setup camp further inland, where the grass and dunes had merged. They were on patrol here, to see if any new ships were coming up the coastline, and to report any suspicious activities in the nearby vicinity.

       With the sunlight gone, the ocean was nothing more than a black sheet now, and Fynn felt his eyelids growing heavy. He hadn’t had a good night of sleep since this whole thing had started. The sound of the ocean waves pulled at him, calling him to fall asleep. He closed his eyes for a moment, let the sounds surround him… and just as he was about to fall asleep, a distant boom made him open his eyes.

       He looked around, but saw nothing at first, then he heard a whistling sound, which grew louder and louder until the thundering sound of an explosion ripped up the beach sand not far from where he was seated. He rolled in the sand and jumped to his feet, his hand tightly gripping the handle of his massive sword. He looked into the forest, assuming the enemy had pushed through the wisp wall, but he saw nothing in the trees.

       “On the ocean!” he heard someone yell.

       He spun just in time to see the flash of a cannon muzzle atop the waves.

       The shot landed not more than five feet where he had just been resting. He was thrown through the air by the detonation and he felt the wind leave his lungs when he landed flat on his back.

       “Fall back to the woods!”

       He heard the order and started to clamor to his feet. He saw someone on top of a dune, waving for him to follow, so he signaled back. A moment later, the figure and the dune where they stood, vanished in a fireball.

       Worse, Fynn heard the sound of clanking metal and wood in the water and looked to the shallow waves where he saw at least five small landing boats already being pulled onto the shore.

       “Enemy forces,” he shouted. “They’re here!”

       This is why they’d been sent here. The Zinji was trying everything to push deeper into the Besherman territory. He wasn’t going to let them. He called upon his luminary magic now, feeling the power ignite in his heart. It answered without hesitation and a moment later Fynn threw out a blinding blast that lit up the beach all around him. In this moment, however, he saw the size of the invading force. There were at least two dozen of them, all armed to the teeth, and unfortunately his beacon of illumination turned their attention right on him.

       There was no way he would be able to stand against that many foes, no matter how strongly his magic empowered him. He lifted his sword anyway, ready to die for the cause if that’s what fate had in store for him. Then, he heard a battle horn from the dunes and he saw torches being lit to reveal a Besherman patrol. Flaming arrows rained down on the beach, then gunfire assailed the enemy attackers.

       Fynn decided to rush toward the enemy, a bold flanking maneuver only made possible by his sudden support from the dunes. He closed the distance in only a few moments, using the light from the burning soldiers and leftover arrows to guide his path of attack.

       The first enemy soldier was divided between the two priorities and Fynn brought him down with a blast of luminary energy that sent his foe sailing back into the ocean. He pressed onward, cutting down at least two more before the others took notice of what was happening.

       Just as they turned to face him, however, the Besherman fired their weapons again. They slammed the enemy in the back and they were sent scattering as they ignited in flame or fell victim to the bullets that ripped through their forces.

       Fynn also felt one of the metal fragments ding against his armor and, thankfully, bounce aimlessly off his chest-plate. He gave a silent word of thanks to the thick armor and his reluctance to abandon it in the heat of the day.

       Then, he heard a chilling voice speak behind him, so sudden and unexpected that it nearly made him yelp in surprise. “You’re mine, paladin.”

       Fynn spun around, hoping he wasn’t too late to counter, but before he could even finish his turn, the world around him went completely black. He froze in place, unsure of what had just happened, but he held his sword up in a defensive position, realizing that he wasn’t dead. Not yet.

       “What is this?” he asked.

       There was a deep cackle from the darkness and then the world flipped upside down. Suddenly, Fynn lost his footing and collapsed backward, slamming down on a grassy surface in the middle of a dark wood. He shifted around, looking for his weapon, but it was nowhere to be seen.

       “Stop looking for it,” the voice said. “It’s gone.”

       “Where am I?” Fÿnn asked. “What is this?!”

       “I summoned you to a new location,” the voice echoed. “You’re in my domain now.”

       “Who are you?” Fynn growled.

       “It does not matter.”

       There was a snap, and just a few feet in front of Fynn, a mangled Zinji figure appeared. He stood with a hunched back and he had decrepit sunken eyes that expressed little emotion. His mouth looked like it might literally fall off his eroded face at any moment.

       “What do you want?”

       “Information,” the man replied flatly.

       “You’ll get nothing from me,” Fynn said, spitting at the evil figure.

       “Perhaps,” the Zinji replied. “Of course, that’s what your friend Aethelwolfe said too, and things didn’t pan out very well for him, now did they?”

       The Zinji flicked his wrist and Fynn saw an object land at his feet. He knelt down and picked it up, realizing instantly that it was one of the coins used to identify the Academy of Hope members. It was coated with a thick layer of dried blood.

       “You killed him?” Fynn asked.

       “I was trying to be dramatic, for more effect,” the Zinji said, rolling his eyes. “Yes. He’s very much dead now. He lacked the information I needed. His brother was far more helpful.”

       Another flick of the wrist; another coin at Fynn’s feet. This one lacked the layer of blood, but it had still been gouged with deep lines, marking an X on the surface.

       “You’ll pay for this,” Fynn said, his blood boiling.

       “So predictable,” the Zinji said. “That’s what those two claimed too.”

       As the creature spoke, Fynn’s armor began to glow with luminary magic, the pieces still infused with latent energy. He stepped forward, completely unafraid of this monstrosity. The Zinji didn’t seem concerned at all, ignoring his movement entirely. “First, I want to know about the Zinji that fights for you, the one named Balorius,” he said. “I know he’s part of your organization.”

       Fynn was closing in rapidly, ignoring the question. “You’ve made a mistake, monster. I don’t need a weapon to fight you. I have other powers!” He held out his hand and lightning burst out, wrapping tightly together to form a mace of pure energy. He rushed forward, taking a mighty swing, and it landed against the enemy’s head with a satisfying crunch. The Zenji collapsed lifeless to the ground and Fynn pulled back his mace to see the damage he had done. Then, his eyes went wide with horror! There was no Zinji there, just a sickly looking Besherman soldier. Fynn spun around, looking into the darkness of the place where he had been brought, but he saw nothing.

       Then, he caught sight of movement, and from the darkness the Zinji emerged. As Fynn stepped toward him, he help up hands to halt the paladin’s progress. “You’ll just kill another of these poor soldiers,” he said mockingly. “I’m not really here, young paladin. I’m projecting myself onto them using dark magic, obviously.”

       “Why are you doing this, Shadowspeaker!?”

       “I want information on Balorius.”

       “The Zinji warrior?” Fynn asked angrily. “Why? What do you care?”

       “Because, that Zinji… he is my brother!”

       Clearly, this was supposed to be shocking news to the paladin, but Fynn didn’t even know that Balorius had siblings, much less evil ones. “Well, I don’t know where your brother is, but I know it doesn’t really matter. We’re going to end this. Now.”

       “You’re quite right about that,” the Zinji said. “You have one of those coins, right?”

       Fynn responded by taking a battle stance. “Face me, you filth! Show your true form!”

       The Zinji chuckled. “I already am.”

       The blast of Yunai energy hit Fynn like a wall of bricks. He rolled across the ground several times before he got control. The Zinji hadn’t been disguised after all, and Fynn had fallen for it so easily. He scrambled to his feet just in time to get hit with another blast of Yunai magic.

       In the darkness of this place, Fynn had difficulty connecting with the renewing energy of his luminary magic. It was being choked out by the corruption that had tainted this place. The enemy was smart to summon him here before making his attack.

       Still, Fynn stood once more and took his battle stance. His powers did manage to block a few more of the Zinji’s attacks before another landed hard against his armor and put him on his knees.

       As the enemy closed in, a dagger in his hand, he stopped short of killing the paladin. “You know,” he started. “You’ll be the third Academy member to die at my hands. It’s unfortunate, really, that you decided to fight. If only you had known how deeply I hold a grudge.”

       Fynn grimaced, but he said nothing. If he was entirely honest with the man, he’d really only heard the first sentence. After that, he’d seen a portal that had opened a short distance behind them. He’d been so focused on not revealing what he saw, that he had practically ignored everything the Zinji had said.

       “What was that?” Fynn asked, feeling hope course through him. “I missed the end about how you hold grudges?”

       The warlock’s growled with rage. “Very well then, if you wish to die in severe pain—”

       Purple tendrils spiked up from the ground with great speed, wrapping around the warlock and tightly gripping his arms and legs so that he was rooted in place.

       “What is this?” he growled. “How?”

       “You’re not the only Shadwospeaker out here,” Kaellax’s calm voice replied. “I tracked your dark magic from the beach. Sloppy tactics.”

       “Fascinating,” the Zinji said, sounding genuinely interested in this development. “I hadn’t anticipated that the Academy included members of the dark arts.”

       “We’re full of suprises,” Fynn said, standing up and moving over to Syanna and Kaellax’s side.

       “Now what?” Kaellax asked. “Crush him into dust?”

       Fynn was about to give her the go ahead when the Zinji violently twisted. The dark tendrils holding him in place were shattered. “Fools!” he shouted. “You think me so weak?”

       In an instant, several other figures emerged from the dark. “Get them!” the Zinji shouted.

       Syanna didn’t hesitate, she pulled her magical energy around them and the portal back to the shore swept forward, pulling all three of them inside before it snapped shut. They landed back on the dunes, not far from the shore, where they saw the Besherman piling up the fallen bodies of the Zinji to be burned in the morning.

       They were, as far as they could tell, safe from the enemy ambush.

       “You okay, Fynn?” Syanna asked once she had sealed their escape.

       “I’m fine,” the paladin replied, “but the Academy of Hope has a problem. A real problem.”

       Syanna frowned. “So it seems. I can get a portal back to Stonehaven to let our leader know.”

       “Our leader?” Fynn asked, puzzled. “I thought Sionis was in charge?”

       “He was,” Syanna replied. “Then he went silent, remember?”

       Fynn frowned. He really wished he knew what had happened in Bounty Bay, but now that issue was far too low on his list of priorities. He had to warn whoever is in charge about this particularly powerful Zinji and his crimes against them. He could mourn for his fallen friends later… right now more lives depended on getting this information back to Stonehaven.

       “What about the enemy attack here?” he asked.

       “We’ll get you to the Academy headquarters,” Syanna said. “You tell the Commander everything you heard and I will get you back here with the others as quickly as I can.”

       “Meanwhile,” Kaellax added. “I’ll warn the others already here that there is someone who appears to be targeting our members. Do you think he knows us?”

       “I don’t know,” Fynn replied. “He only came after me after he got to Aethelwolfe and Dhespair. I don’t know how he knows who we are, but we need to assume that no member is safe. Not until we can figure this out.”

       “Right, say no more.”

       As Kaellax rushed toward the Besherman camp where the other members were waiting, Syanna was already conjuring a portal that would take them back to Stonehaven. Fynn’s mind swirled with all the things that unfolded… the enemy assault here… this Zinji Shadowspeaker and his personal vendetta against… the Academy… and a brother?

       It was too much for him to wrestle with alone. He took a deep breath and tried to calm himself just as Syanna finished her work. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s get moving.”

       Fynn nodded and stepped through the portal, wondering all the way if this camp would still be here by the time he returned, or if the flames of war would consume it all.

To be continued…

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